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Thursday, August 29, 2013

On Creating An "Authenic Teen Voice" (Or Any "Authentic Voice", For That Matter)

One of the keys to writing a compelling novel is to write with an authentic voice.  If your voice is "authentic", all this means is that it sounds real.  It doesn't read like an author is telling a story--it reads like the character herself is telling the story.  It feels natural and organic.

So many authors, though, try almost too hard to create an "authentic voice", especially an "authentic teen voice".  Many adult authors, especially, feel the need to capture a voice that is, at the core, a teenager voice.  One that everyone would instantly recognize as a teenager voice. 

This is necessary, to an extent.  You can't write a modern teenager's voice that sounds believable if you're using slang that's been out of use since the '80s.  You can't create an authentic, real-feeling 13-19-year-old if you assume they think just like the 40-some-year-old author. 

Some authors take this way too far, though.  They try too hard.  The voice often comes out sounding forced, exaggerated, and unrealistic.  These unrealistic voices tend to be either overly sarcastic, or they just reinforce an unrealistic stereotype.  And they have no authenticity. 

For a minute, I'd like to reiterate the point about over-sarcastic teen characters.  I've talked about this before, but I'll say it again.  The number of teens in books who are constantly being sarcastic and snarky is much, much higher than in real life.  Look, I made pie charts (click to enlarge):          

And the reality (estimated using non-mathematical methods called "guessing" and "this looks about right"): 

In my experience, most teens don't act like this.  Yes, some do, but most don't.  This is an unfortunate teen stereotype that fiction only serves to reinforce.  And while I'm on the topic of teen stereotypes, let's talk about the typical high school stereotypes for a minute.  You've got the popular girls, the jocks, the nerds, the goths, theater geeks, etc.  Sometimes authors sound like they learned about modern high school dynamics through High School Musical.  The characters act like they came right out of HSM's stereotype molds.  I could rant forever about how unrealistic these stereotypes are, but I won't. 

For a movie that is supposedly about breaking down stereotypes, HSM actually does the opposite--it reinforces these clichés.  For one, it presents characters that conform to these stereotypes, which is the first thing that makes me go "Nope nope nope!".  It presents a set of seemingly stereotypical characters who have an "inner secret" that is just so opposite their predetermined social group that it comes off as unrealistic, and is actually played for laughs.  The fact that Troy, a "jock", likes to sing is taken seriously, but then we have the nerd who likes hip-hop dancing, the skater who plays the cello, etc., and they are not meant to be taken seriously.  It's meant to get snickers from the audience, and that bothers me.  Playing it as comic relief only suggests that this is absurd, that this is not and should not be taken seriously. 

And besides, nobody fits into the movie stereotypes of high school students.  High schools do have cliques, and there is a hierarchy.  In my experience, though, there's nobody who is that cut-and-dry.  There are always unexpected friendships between people who, at first glance, would never appear to operate in the same social circles.  A vast and overwhelming majority of teenagers can't fit themselves into any one stereotypical group, even if they wanted to.  I play tennis.  Am I a jock?  I'm in many AP and honors courses.  Am I a nerd?  I'm in band and speech.  Does that make me a performing arts geek?  At least, at my school, and I imagine in most other schools, it's completely okay for the football quarterback to also be in the school musical.  There are brilliant "emo kids" who get excellent grades.  Things like this happen all the time and none of us in high school really think much of it, because most of us get the point that people are more complex and nuanced than stereotypes make us out to be.

And besides, random things like this happen in HSM.  Random "Gotta go frolic across a golf course lawn randomly and sing a random song" things.  Zefron, what are you doing?  Headmaster Zefron, are you alright?

(If you don't believe me about HSM being ridiculous, look at some GIFs.  For some reason, putting it in GIFs makes it even more absurd.  Like this.)

But I'm digressing from my main point.  And my main point is that so many authors seem to try too hard to create an authentic voice. 

There is no one single "authentic teen voice".  In fact, there's no one "authentic [any character type] voice".  No single "authentic boy voice", "authentic girl voice", "authentic adult voice".

Every character is different.  There is one authentic voice for Katniss Everdeen.  For Eragon.  For Hazel Grace.  For Percy Jackson and Ender Wiggin and Tyrion Lannister anyone else who has ever had a point-of-view chapter, ever. 

There's just you, and your character.  You don't need to try so hard to be authentic.  All you need to do is write a voice that is authentic to your character, and to you.  If you can manage that, then you will have the authentic voice.

So can we stop trying so hard to find the one, the only "authentic voice"?  Because it's not out there.  It doesn't exist.  The only authentic voice you can ever find comes from you, and your own characters. 

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  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that! I'm an aspiring author myself and book blog reviewer and I do notice a LOT of stereotypes in ya books, especially the ones I love!!! I try to battle it in my own writing and reading this I'll definitely dig deeper to fight this.

  2. YES. I absolutely cannot stand the typical snotty head cheerleader stereotype because it just isn't true 100% of the time. And the captain of the football team is not always a player. The band kids aren't all nerds and they're not all sluts either. Yes yes YES! I approve this post! :)

    Mary @ Mary Had a Little Book Blog


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